Doctor Who: Phone boxes and DeLoreans – Why the most ordinary objects make the most iconic time machines

Police boxes. DeLoreans. Phone booths. Thanks to Doctor Who, Back to the Future and Bill and Ted, these are all associated with iconic time machines. But why?

Earlier this month, I was re-watching the Back to the Future trilogy for the first time in a while. No particular reason, I just felt like re-watching them. They’re just as good as I remember, and still make for entertaining movies. (I also recommend Back to the Future: The Game, which feels like a very natural successor to the original movies.)

One thing that stood out was the DMC DeLorean. These days, we think of it as “the Back to the Future car” or “the time machine in Back to the Future“. But the car had been around for a few years already before the first movie was released, although it’s arguably most recognized now because of those classic movies.

It’s the same with Doctor Who and police boxes. These days, you see a blue police box, you think Doctor Who. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a hardcore fan or you never watch it: if you’re British, then you associate it immediately with Britain’s longest sci-fi series.

While not quite to the same extent, it’s easy to associate American telephone booths with Bill & Ted. Maybe Superman more due to the iconic image of Clark Kent changing to the Man of Tomorrow in a booth, but Bill and Ted definitely share some of that phone booth recognition.

Police phone boxes were highly common across England long before Doctor Who, as this 1930s image shows. But it’s because of our favorite TV series that we recognize it now.
(Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From ordinary to extraordinary

Why do the most ordinary objects make for the best or most iconic time machines? There are two key reasons for this. The first is that, initially, at least, it gives the audience something relatable. In the case of Doctor WhoBack to the Future and Bill and Ted, they all used something from the present day. Maybe not something that everyone used, but something clear and recognizable.

As a result, those objects always stood out whenever they traveled through time. Whether it was an ancient historical setting, a distant world, or even the 1950s, something like a phone box or a DeLorean would instantly stand out.

Which brings me to my second point. These items initially work well as time machines because they’re very much of their time. But the fact that they are of their time – and so, become dated after a while – actually adds to their iconic power. When the times change and these cars and boxes are gradually phased out of the everyday, we mainly recognize them from our favorite movies and TV shows. As a result, these objects are out of time in our own present day, and thus sell the time machine perhaps even better than before.

It also says a lot about how the best stories can outlast the most everyday things. Phone boxes and DeLorean cars might have been phased out by now. But thanks to the power of great stories, people will continue to recognize them for a long time. Not just recognize, but perhaps get a sense of joy and nostalgia from them, too. And that’s really amazing.

What’s your favorite time machine in pop culture? Do you prefer them to look like everyday objects, or something more fantastical, such as the one seen in the 1960 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine? Let us know in the comments below.